Revisiting Shop Stewards and Workplace Bargaining: Opportunities, Resources and Dynamics in Two Case Studies
Joyce, Simon Charles
Recent accounts of workplace union representation have emphasised the exclusion of shop stewards from management decision-making processes, and have posited a shift in shop steward activity away from dealing with collective issues through bargaining, towards dealing with individual issues through casework, as part of the wider decline of union influence. This thesis challenges those accounts by showing that they utilise a problematic conceptual framework and rest upon questionable empirical foundations. An alternative framework is proposed which incorporates a clearly conceptualised definition of bargaining – something missing from previous accounts – and which develops and synthesises conceptual elements from Marxist-influenced sociologies of work, bargaining theory, and industrial relations scholarship. It is shown that efforts to influence management decision making and to restrict managerial prerogatives continue to figure prominently in shop steward activity, even though the reduction of union influence is undeniable and formal arrangements for union-management relations have been recast. Moreover, these efforts are often to some extent successful. This analysis is supported by considerable evidence from two detailed workplace studies, including an innovative use of diaries, which contribute important new insights into the activity of contemporary shop stewards. This thesis argues that the persistence of shop steward bargaining is best understood in relation to underlying dynamics of conflict and exploitation within the employment relationship under capitalism. Bargaining processes are explored in terms of changing patterns of bargaining opportunities and bargaining resources, which are linked to changing management practices. While the form and location of bargaining processes have changed, the prevalence of issues around the effort bargain and frontier of control demonstrate the continuing influence of the dynamics of workplace relations on patterns of shop steward activity. While further research is required, the theoretical and conceptual framework developed in this thesis suggests that similar processes are likely to be found elsewhere.